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Suhasini Haidar
Thursday , August 23, 2012 at 15 : 52

Radicals in Rawalpindi


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Kamra's Minhas air force base is one of Pakistan's most prized installations - part of a string of bases that guard the country's north, it is best positioned to launch anti-terror air operations in Taliban-held areas. It houses an air weapons complex meant to build aircraft like the JF-17s, refit F-16s and Mirages, and an avionics and radar factory. If reports are to be believed, it also stores a part of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

It is shocking that terrorists were able to sneak past three rings of security to reach the heart of the airbase, even more so because they didn't come without warning. On August 10, The Express Tribune reported specific intelligence inputs which said that the TTP had trained two teams to attack an air force base in Punjab before Eid. As officials piece together evidence on how one of their most heavily secured areas could be attacked despite warnings, there are other dots that Pakistan's leaders, both civilian and military, must try to join.

To begin with, the attack on the airbase resembles the one on the General Headquarters of the Pakistan army in 2009 and the PNS Mehran naval base attack in 2011. Both involved 8-10 militants dressed in uniforms and suicide vests, armed with maps and fairly accurate information on the layout. The attacks coincided with the announcement of fresh offensives in North Waziristan, and the TTP claimed credit for all three.

Officials must also investigate a more sinister link - both the GHQ and Mehran attacks involved radicalised military men. In the GHQ attack, a former member of the army medical corps and a former soldier were sentenced to death and life imprisonment respectively. Last year, after the Mehran base killings, former naval commando Kamran Ahmed and his brother were arrested, and naval officer Mohammad Israrul Haq was convicted and sentenced to rigorous imprisonment. In the Kamra base attack, intelligence received by Pakistan's agencies said the TTP's reconnaissance teams had cased the airbase with the "help of personnel inside". What seems clear is the threat to Pakistan's army is increasingly from within.

Finally, the common thread could well be al-Qaeda commander Ilyas Kashmiri, reportedly killed in a drone attack last June. Kashmiri was a commando of Pakistan's elite Special Services Group, before turning terrorist, and became the founder of the "313 brigade", originally believed to be raised by the Inter-Services Intelligence to carry out anti-India operations. Kashmiri also ran the umbrella terror organisation, Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami, sourcing members of the Lashkar-e-Taiba and other groups for operations. According to murdered journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad, who interviewed Kashmiri twice, and wrote about it in his book, Inside the Taliban and Al Qaeda: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11, Kashmiri and his men maintained links with "rogue ISI and military elements", who "outsourced" the plan for the Mumbai attack after they failed to gain backing for it from the Pakistani army's leadership.

This jihadi element in the armed forces, Saleem concluded in an article days before his death, was also responsible for the GHQ attack and the Mehran naval base attack. Kashmiri was named the planner for both attacks carried out by the TTP before he was declared killed last year. But US and Pakistani intelligence have never confirmed his death, nor has his family ever been informed of it.( A photograph of his body released by Kashmiri's group turned out to be that of one of the 26/11 attackers killed in Mumbai). In March 2012, Pakistan's The Daily Times reported that Kashmiri was alive, spotted at a meeting in North Waziristan with TTP chief Mehsud. If this is indeed true, it is one more dot that has been joined in this murky puzzle.

Internationally, the Kamra attack has put the focus on the threat of jihadi groups accessing Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. For Pakistan's army, though, it is time to dedicate itself to fighting the demon within its ranks, and to acknowledge that the extremists it once unleashed are now endangering its existence, able to strike at will on all three arms of the military: army, air force and naval bases.

In India, the focus must broaden to take in what the coming together of so many threads of terror could mean. In one of his last interviews, Shahzad told CNN-IBN that the TTP, al-Qaeda, the LeT and Kashmiri's 313 brigade had a shared objective - sparking off a war between India and Pakistan. Just because they were unsuccessful in 2008 doesn't mean they won't try again.


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More about Suhasini Haidar

Suhasini Haidar is Diplomatic Editor, The Hindu. Earlier, she was a senior editor and prime time anchor for India's leading 24-hour English news channel CNN-IBN, and also hosted the signature show, 'World View with Suhasini Haidar'. Over the course of her 17-year career, Suhasini has covered the most challenging stories and conflicts from the most diverse regions including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Libya, Lebanon and Syria. In India, she has covered the external affairs beat for over a decade and her domestic assignments include in-depth reportage from Kashmir. In 2011 she won the Indian Television Academy-GR8! Award for 'Global news coverage',and the Exchange4Media 'Enba' award for best spot news reporting from Libya. In 2010, She won the NewsTelevision NT 'Best TV News Presenter' Award. Suhasini is the only journalist to have interviewed Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his family, a show that won the prestigious Indian Television Academy award as 'Best Chat show' for the year.
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